Dawn of Catholicism in Korea
Korea, since its foundation some 3,000 years ago, has preserved its own unique history and culture. Geographically Korea is located in a peninsular between China and Japan and it had developed ties with these countries through the cultural exchanges. The traditional religions of Korea were Buddhism and Confucianism though many Koreans believed in shamanism alongside of these two religions.
Catholicism first was introduced into Korea in the 17th century. By that time, Catholicism had already spread in China and Japan and Koreans who were in contact with these two countries knew of its existence. Catholic Books in Chinese language were transmitted to Korea from the 17th century. Some Korean literati got an idea of this new religion through reading and studying these books on Catholicism and tried to practice it by themselves. One of them, Yi Seung-hun, went to Beijing to be baptized and on his return to Korea he founded a Christian community. This was in October, 1784. With this historical event we can affirm that the Catholic Church in Korea was established, not by European missionaries, but by the spontaneous efforts of Korean people.
The Church was developed through the efforts of Korean believers. Those who led in the early stage of the Church belonged to the noble class. However, from the beginning, the door of the Church was opened to all the people of society. Soon the majority of the faithful as well as the leadership of the community became the non-privileged people who were oppressed by the ruling class at that time.
The Catholic Church in Korea was suppressed from its early days because the government considered Catholicism to be opposed to the Neo-Confucianism which was the guiding ideal of the government at that time. The principle of equality of all mankind which Catholics pursued was judged as a dangerous belief that contravenes the social hierarchical system. Furthermore the contact of the Catholics with foreigners without the permission of the government was regarded as a criminal act. The newly born Church, seeking communion with the universal Church, was in contact with the Vicar Apostolic of Beijing
About 10,000 of the faithful died martyrs in persecutions that lasted for more than one hundred years. Among them 103 martyrs including the first Korean priest Father Andrew Kim Tae-gon were canonized on May 6th, 1984 at Yoido, Seoul, Korea, by the Pope John Paul II.
In 1882, tacit consent was given to the freedom of religion for Catholics and this freedom was officially recognized in 1895. Since then the Catholic Church in Korea had the opportunity to serve Korean people and society despite the restriction of the freedom of religion by the Japanese colonialism.
The full development of the Catholic Church in Korea began in 1945 with the liberation of the country from Japanese rule. But, regrettably, soon after the independence, Korea was divided into two nations: the Republic of Korea in the South and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the North. Since then, Korea has become a place of ideological confrontations and, eventually, Korean War broke out in 1950. However, the Church in South Korea experienced remarkable growth both in quality and in quantity. Especially, the contribution of the Church to the democratization of Korea under military regime is highly appreciated.
By the end of 2002, the number of Catholics amounted to 4,347,605 or 9.0 percent of population of 48,517,871 and its growth in number of the faithful, priests and religious continued.
In Korea, the confrontation of ideology between communism and capitalism is still a reality. Efforts to overcome poverty and to promote economic development have shown progress side by side. We can say that Korea is a crossroad where East-West problems and South-North problems meet.
The Church in Korea is also finding its place in the local culture. Originally Korean culture stood apart from Christianity. For this reason there was conflict between Church and the local culture when Christianity was first introduced into Korea. Today a great efforts are made by the Church to reconcile itself with the Korean culture and make harmony. Thus it will be worthful to analyse the historical experience of the Church in Korea and share it with the universal Church.
We will present it in eight articles which will describe the characteristics of the historical process that the Catholic Church in Korea went through over 200 years.